I’m fascinated by cover songs. For whatever reason – trust me, I’ve thought of a lot of reasons – I think covering a piece of music is one of the most interesting artistic things you can do. I’ve decided to start a category here to only talk about that. This week, it’s Piece of My Heart. Originally sung by Erma Franklin, but famously covered by Janis Joplin, I’ve been thinking about how the song could stand in for a whole approach to music by white and black America. It was written by two white guys, Jerry Ragavoy and Bert Sterns, who also gave the world “Time is On My Side”, and first recorded by Erma, Aretha’s little sister.
Listening to the two different versions, one is struck by how Joplin belts and screams her way through it, emphasizing all the big notes, and stopping the song with that famous heart-rendering shout in the middle. The whole, id-driven personality captured in Joplin famously raspy voice forces you to notice Joplin, her fashionably-raggedy appearance and her shaggy backing band, as they notably speed up the song, showing off their soul chops.
But what I like about Franklin’s version is exactly the opposite. Listening to the lyrics, one might also envision a more nuanced, subtle, interpretation of the lyrics. It’s not to say that Franklin doesn’t shout it out with the best of them, but maybe this is the thing about covering a song, that it becomes about you and the way you’re covering it, instead of the actual content; it’s moving in a form, rather than expressing that which the form was invented to express. Franklin hits all the high notes, but she, and the band, also bring it down, and hit the softer notes with all the desperation and sadness required of the song’s lyrics. At the moment that Joplin has to belt it out, Franklin solidly hits the notes in a way that suggests the uptight, constricted, tension of 1960’s black America. There’s a sadness beneath the notes that Joplin can only hint at, that no amount of drugs or alcohol – typical youthful white replacements for actual experience, actual blues – can substitute for. No one ever told Joplin she wasn’t anything other than an amazing singer, whereas not only did Franklin have to toil in her sister’s shadow, she also, like her sister and every other black woman in 1960, had to toil in White America. The sadness is there, the happiness is a kind you can find in places like Russia or North Korea, places where to laugh at all might be in and of itself, a little funny. What could you possibly be laughing at? Well, having a party isn’t just a rebellion against your parents, it’s a rebellion against a society that would rather you disappear. When Marvin Gaye sings “Going to a Go-Go” it’s a defiant call – despite everything, we are going to have a party, motherfuckers.
And if things go bad, if you find yourself in love with a man who won’t love you back, there’s a deep, fathomless pool of misery from which to pull your grief from. The thing to do is to start the song with a quiet piano, a little sideways slide into the lyrics, that starts with a question: Didn’t I?” …and the backup singers start to support you, and the bass slides through to the chorus, and the horns kick in, and you find your voice, and the thing you wanted to say… “And you know that you never ever hear me cry at night…”